Ninhal moved to Connecticut when she was twenty three, leaving the acrid smoke of Mumbai (formerly Bombay) where she'd lived thus far to travel half way around the world to marry a man. A man she'd met exactly once, and with whom she had never exchanged words.
This was 2001, not 1951. Ninhal had grown up in a loving Indian household. Her mother raised four sons and Ninhal, the only daughter. Her father worked as a manager for a construction company that made billions of dollars in the economic boom days that India has so recently been experiencing. They were an upwardly mobile middle class family, wanting for nothing.
"Growing up, my parents' parents were all poor, but my parents made a lot of money by Indian standards. We had servants in the house (I thought this was perfectly normal in our society everyone of our class stature had servants), new cars, fancy clothes, jewelry. We read magazines, went to movies, all the usual teen stuff."
Ninhal went to school; her parents were adamant that she get a good education. Even her mother, who had dropped out of school in the fifth grade to stay home and take care of ailing relatives, promised Ninhal would have an even better life. She got her degree in accounting and got an internship as a "fresher" in a large accounting firm in the new business centers that were popping up on the outskirts of the city catering to the burgeoning Information Technology industry that was exploding.
At work she discovered new-found freedom along with responsiblity. "My parents had worked so hard to provide me with everything that the one thing they hadn't really prepared me for was taking responsibility. I didn't want to fight traffic one or two hours every morning to work until 5 or 6pm then come home and do this every day. I had dreams! I wanted to travel the world, be successful, but I didn't want to really work for it. I also wanted to be a movie star, and have a family. The problem was that no one ever told me I couldn't have all those things! Or at least not without hard work."
Ninhal was fired after six months. A humiliating defeat for someone of whom her family had such high hopes. Her mother came up with the solution: it was time for Ninhal to get married. Her mother dove head first into this as a plan to save her daughter from ignominy and humiliation.
At first Ninhal wanted nothing to do with the sad parade of men that her mother shamelessly brought to the house. The endless litany of "He's a doctor!" or "He's in I.T!" or "He works in finance and his family name is very good!" fell on deaf ears. Ninhal pulled back from her family more, aghast at the thought of being joined in matrimony with someone found by her mother and judged on his degrees and job. Ninhal wanted passion and romance and love! She wanted to be swept off her feet like a Bollywood movie.
The more men Ninhal's mother brougth to the house, the more Ninhal rebelled. She vascillated between being morose and locking herself in her room, refusing to come out, to being wild and unmanageable, going out with friends until all hours of the night, dragging herself home at dawn, make-up smeared and her tight clothes rumpled.
At first her father watched his favorite daughter, bemused at her "little rebellion" as he called it. He also gazed in amusement at the frenzy of his beloved wife trying to desperately find a match before their daughter was ruined, as she wailed to him nightly.
But one night when he was getting ready to leave for work, his driver pulled the long car out of the gate and he spied a man and a woman locked in an embrace against the pillar. He did a double-take when he realized it was his daughter.
Raging, he flew from the car and his voice boomed across the quiet neighborhood's morning air. "GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE!" His imposing stance towered over the now frightened young lad who shriveled down and scooted off. "YOU!" He grabbed his daughter by her arm, squeezing her so tight he left bruises for days, and dragged her into the house.
His wife began wailing. His daughter began shrieking. His remaining son started yelling that they were disturbing his sleep. Ninhal cried and begged her parents for forgiveness. Her father stood stony and enraged while Ninhal's mother alternated between berating Ninhal and protecting her from her father's rage.
After a while her father left for work, telling Ninhal's mother to come up with a solution before dinner or HE would come up with a solution - such as sending Ninhal to the south to live on a desolate farm with distant relatives, "where she can't disgrace her family name!"
Her mother wrung her hands and called together a meeting of her women friends, who came immediately and they sat around the table drinking tea and clucking sympathetically. They made lists of all eligible bachelors who might be willing to marry the frenetic young maiden and save her reputation.
Meanwhile Ninhal sat on her bed, dejected and crying. Her mother brought her tea and toast and told her of her fate. A young man named Kiran, from nearby, had recently taken a job in New York and had already bought a house in Connecticut. She was to marry him, assuming he would have her. The look on her mother's face was pointed. Ninhal, exhausted and upset, agreed.
She spent the rest of the afternoon locked in her room, pacing, crying, and "wondering what my new life in New York" would be like.
The women got busy, and Kiran was summoned to return to India to meet his new bride. He appeared in their living room one afternoon, and Ninhal was only allowed to see him from across the room. They didn't speak. Her father did most of the talking, asking Kiran about New York and Connecticut and life in the United States. He seemed an affable young man with ambition and with a good family name. The two were betrothed.
"We all watched the movie or read the book 'The Namesake' by Jhumpa Lahiri and the movie starring Kal Penn. [Arranged marriage was] how it is for many of us. I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to live in the United States, but India is my home; it's where I belong.”
"I wish I could tell you that I left my family, friends, my LIFE, in India to make the best of it in the United States, but the truth is that I was miserable. Absolutely miserable. I moved, and hated every minute of it. I came to hate Kiran, who was cold and distant, always working, and made no friends even among the Indians who lived there. They thought I was snooty and I thought they had settled for less, like I had, and I resented them and their happiness for my misery."
Ninhal's father softened towards her when their first baby was born. He flew the entire family to Connecticut where she spent a week entertaining them. Despite being exhausted from the guests and caring for a new born, Ninhal's cheeks became pink again and she was laughing. She missed her family desperately. She confided her unhappiness to her youngest brother, who in turn told her mother. Her mother had been giving her sideways glances all along, so happy to see her daughter in her fancy house in America, but worried because her daughter looked aged and much too thin.
Her mother then confided her reservations to her husband. Ninhal's father offered to drive Ninhal to the store so they could buy more supplies for the baby. In the car, Ninhal slumped against the seat, happy to be relaxing.
"Daughter, does your husband treat you well?"
"Do you love him, Ninhal?"
She looked at her father, who suddenly was so concerned about her welfare and feelings.
"You know I love your mother very much. She is my earth and moon. Without her I am lost. Our marriage, too, was arranged. We too did not know each other when we got married. It was awkward in the beginning. Our children helped a lot, but it was work. Can you work on this marriage Ninhal?"
Ninhal nodded. She'd never had intentions of doing otherwise.
He patted her knee. "I’ll make you a deal. I never said I wasn't a fair man," he laughed at his own joke. "If you give this five years, and you are still miserable, I will help you leave."
Ninhal gasped. Her father, the arch-conservative, who loved her and her mother very much "his girls" as he called them but who also loved his stature in society and his good name, was telling her that she could be modern, leave her husband? She was overcome with emotion and only able to nod.
"Thank you, Papa," she whispered.
Ninhal kept her word. In five years, their marriage had not gotten any better, and Ninhal suspected that Kiran was having an affair with a young colleague, an American woman.
Two weeks after their fifth anniversary, her father called. "I never said I am not a man of my word!" his laugh bounced across the telephone lines from India. "Does my daughter want to return home?"
"Yes, Papa." The relief in her voice was palpable. Home! The land she missed with all her heart. She had finally grown fond of America and Americans, but still felt that her body and soul belonged back in Bombay with her family, especially as her parents were aging.
"We all watched the movie or read the book 'The Namesake' by Jhumpa Lahiri and the movie starring Kal Penn. That's just how it is for many of us. I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to live in the United States, but India is my home; it's where I belong. Maybe not for others, but I am happiest here."
Ninhal got a divorce from Kiran, who granted it without any argument (he soon after married his American girlfriend) and Ninhal returned to India with her two children. The children spend every summer with their father in New York. "This way we're all getting what we want. This time it worked out best for everyone."
Thank you Ninhal for sharing your Story with us.
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